May 7, 2020

IntelBrief: The Coronavirus as a Pretext for Censorship and Press Intimidation 

People wearing protective face masks to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus walk through the capital's popular tourist spot of Nanluonguxiang after reopened for tourists following the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, Sunday, May 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
  • May 3rd was the 27th annual World Press Freedom Day, although freedom of the press is under assault worldwide.
  • Some governments have used the coronavirus as an excuse to censor media outlets that are merely attempting to provide transparent reporting about the pandemic and its effects.
  • Already among the worst countries for press freedom, China has cracked down even more since the coronavirus pandemic began in late 2019, originating in Wuhan and spreading from there to the rest of the world.
  • The Trump administration continues to regularly demean the idea of a free press, rejecting all criticism as ‘fake news’ and promoting the notion that the media is the ‘enemy of the people.’

The last several years have been extremely difficult for journalists and those advocating for freedom of the press. In the United States, the skewed economics of journalism—marginalized by tech giants and social media companies like Facebook and Google—has led to the shuttering of local and independent newspapers. These newspapers are among the few remaining bastions of an informed local electorate and serve as a check, or watchdog, against improper or ineffective local and state governance. Tens of thousands of jobs in journalism have been lost in the last decade, and this trend shows no sign of abating anytime soon. The dwindling number of journalists that do remain are facing something of an existential crisis—an increasingly hostile environment from dictators and world leaders who seek to repress objective journalism, as well as declining readership and revenues from advertisers. 

United States President Donald Trump continues to demean the very idea of a free press. He openly and explicitly equates the quality of journalism with how favorable he and his administration are portrayed, keeping in line with Trump’s transactional approach to both domestic and foreign policy. The disdain permeates the entire Executive Branch, with senior officials routinely parroting the President’s cries of ‘fake news. The recently replaced White House Press Secretary, Stephanie Grisham, failed to hold a single press conference in her eight months as chief spokeswoman for the President. This antipathy extends to President Trump’s ‘base,’ or loyal supporters, who regularly denounce what the President has labeled the ‘lamestream media.’ On May 3rd, as the United Nations marked the 27th ‘World Press Freedom Day,’ President Trump tweeted that ‘Lamestream Media is totally CORRUPT, the Enemy of the People!’ President Trump has often voiced frustration that the media has not agreed with his administration’s evaluation of its coronavirus response, which most objective observers have assessed as utterly inept. More than 71,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 as of May 6, 2020. Despite this, President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner recently tried to assure the country that the Trump administration's response has been 'a great success story,' which in his opinion, is 'really what needs to be told' by the media. Tens of thousands of additional coronavirus deaths have been projected in the coming months.

Outside of the United States, the situation is much worse in authoritarian countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The coronavirus has proven to be an effective revealer of the true character of ruling regimes and governments. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has rightfully been criticized for its deliberately opaque handling of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing has responded to that criticism by cracking down on press outlets that stray from the official party line. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China ranks first in the world on the list of countries that put journalists in prison (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Eritrea round out the top five). Whistleblowers attempting to expose the true extent of the pandemic in China have been arrested, intimidated, and threatened. As a result, it is foolhardy to rely on any statistics from the CCP as it relates to death tolls and number of infections. The same can be said for numbers issued by the governments of Russia and Iran. Russian President Putin dismissed reports of a growing rate of infection in his country and only recently has the Kremlin publicly acknowledged the extent of the problem. Iran, meanwhile, responded to COVID-19 with additional censorship and intimidation and some have speculated Iran’s 6,418 deaths due to the coronavirus is a number far lower than the reality. 

These state-directed censorship efforts make an informed global response impossible. Making matters worse, the virus of mis- and disinformation is spreading even faster and more broadly than COVID-19. The pandemic is a perfect storm for conspiracy theories. Every extremist group can find a way to frame their own narratives or world views in response to the coronavirus. Ultra-nationalist and racist groups fill the void with theories of racial germ warfare and call for restrictions and even persecution of minorities or different ethnicities or religions. Leaders who criminalize actual journalism and those who simply dismiss honest journalism as ‘fake news’ are insidious. Moreover, these actions result in the suppression of objective information and data, and the public being unsure of where to turn for accurate reporting. Furthermore, labeling the media the ‘enemy of the people’ encourages civil disobedience and fuels hatred that could result in real-world consequences. Now, more than ever, it is incumbent upon elected officials to support a free and adversarial press and ensure that journalists are able to do their job without fear of intimidation, injury, or imprisonment. 


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